This weekend, the American Civil War Museum opens in Richmond for the first time. The institution is six years in the making, the result of a merger between the American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy. It’s a timely look at history that’s loomed large in recent years.
The museum’s groundbreaking took place just days after white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville to a statue of Robert E. Lee. Now the opening comes on the heels of the blackface scandal surrounding Virginia’s Governor and an ensuing conversation about racism.
Museum CEO Christy Coleman says it’s past time for Americans to set aside myths about the Civil War and its aftermath and instead confront the realities.
“You know I’ve said this more times than enough now. We’ll never get right with each other if we don’t get the history right,” Coleman says.
The new American Civil War Museum aims to do just that. It’s unprecedented in its attempt to tell the entire story of the war -- not just from the Northern and Southern perspectives, but through the eyes of women, immigrants, natives, and enslaved and free African-Americans.
The permanent exhibit features Civil War-era photographs, blown up to life size and color tinted. There’s a sense of immediacy and presence to the stories told. Old letters are read aloud, looping narratives under dim lights.
“The old master didn’t tell no one they was freed,” reads one voice. “The Yankees went there and turned us loose, they turned us out just like cattle.”
It’s all in a context made possible by integrating the former Museum of the Confederacy’s extensive collection with the latest scholarship and research.
On a recent tour for reporters, curator Cathy Wright steps into the final exhibition space. A portrait that once hung in the Museum of the Confederacy takes up an entire wall. It pictures Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
But in this new space it’s directly opposed by an enlarged and colored photograph of eight men in suits. African-American lawmakers elected in Virginia during Reconstruction, when more than 140,000 black men registered to vote in Virginia.
“This group of men are legislators who were in the Virginia House of Representatives in the 1870’s,” explains Wright.
The building itself is a juxtaposition. A $25 million masterpiece of glass set against the crumbling brick of Tredegar Iron Works, the foundry that made cannons for both the Confederate States of America and the United States.
And all of it overlooks the James River, once a thoroughfare for human cargo. At the outbreak of the war, Richmond was home to the second largest slave market in the U.S. This museum doesn’t mince that history. Even before the first exhibit, curators make clear this conflict was about the institution of slavery.
“We’re not going to sit here and go down this road of debate about state’s rights and westward expansion or any of these other things,” says Wright. “It’s slavery. Full stop.”
That directness might challenge some people’s notions of the Civil War. But that’s the point, says CEO Christy Coleman.
“This idea that we can’t re-examine or give the fullness of the story of our past is problematic. It’s extremely problematic,” Coleman says.
Coleman is an historian who served on Richmond’s Monument Avenue Commission. That group advised the city to add context to the Confederate monuments that still stand in the state’s capitol. Richmond still hasn’t acted on that suggestion.
Coleman hopes that by learning our nation’s history in all its complexity and humanity, we’ll be better prepared to confront today’s challenges.
“I think we stand a better chance of acknowledging that we still have a lot of work to do,” Coleman says. “It’s not hopeless but it’s possible.”
The American Civil War Museum’s grand opening is Saturday May 4th.